High Test Scores: A Cautionary Tale

A few years ago, New York State witnessed a movement as huge numbers of children were being opted out of NYS academic achievement tests by their parents.  According to the NY Times, opt-out numbers may have topped 300,000.  While there were multiple reasons for this movement, concerns centered around the belief that high-stakes tests were ultimately hurting the future well-being of children.

While some “high stakes” testings have cooled, the eagerness to dissect achievement exams and rank students, districts, and schools have not.

“Student test scores plummeted in math and reading.” – CNN, September 2022

Despite the shift of focus away from “high stakes” tests, educators, parents, and media outlets want to know, who is on top? Who is on the bottom? How bad or good? Some schools are getting accolades while others are getting question marks.   On the surface, these questions seem harmless.

The Dark Side of Testing

Here is where the cautionary tale begins.  Do you really want your school or child on top?  As a parent of two children in school, who have taken these tests, I did what everyone else does… I quickly looked at their scores and how they ranked against their peers.  I also felt proud when they were in the upper quartile.   However, there is a dark side.

As an educator and researcher specializing in workforce development, creativity, and the future, it is critical that our community understands that these Achievement tests are both alluring and potentially dangerous.  They are a small element of a more important conversation – a conversation our community needs to be having with our educational systems.  How do we better prepare our children and region for a world that demands adaptability, entrepreneurial thinking, and innovation?

We are seeing a powerful glimpse of the future with the emergence of ChatGPT—the new cutting edge Artificial Intelligence language. According to a recent study by Price Waterhouse Coopers, “The Future of Work: A Journey to 2022,” AI and automation are expected to change the nature of work in the coming years. The study suggests AI will automate some tasks and require a different set of skills, such as creativity, and social and emotional intelligence.

The Brooking Institute, June 2022, agrees and puts pressure on our educational systems.

“To become complementary to AI, more workers will need what researchers call 21st-century skills. These include communication, complex analytical skills that often require careful judgments of multiple factors, and creativity. The onus is on K-12 and postsecondary schools to adapt and provide greater emphasis on teaching such skills.”

Brookings Institute, June 2022

Our limited methods for evaluating schools and children annually, i.e., NYS tests, are having a harmful effect on the actions of educators, education leaders, and policymakers.  Certainly, we need our future generations to be intellectually brilliant, but how we make this happen will need to evolve in a way that maintains engagement, inspires collaboration, raises creativity, and excites entrepreneurial activity.  Here are just three areas of concern backed by research.

Three Areas of Concern

  1. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, entrepreneurial activity is stifled by a rising fear of failure.  Before the Pandemic, the US Census Bureau reported that the percentage of business deaths was surpassing new business start-ups for the first time in US history.  A trend that needs to be flipped.  Furthermore, research shows that when test scores on the international benchmark Math tests (PSIA) go up, entrepreneurial activity goes down.  This negative correlation, while not direct, still speaks to the great importance of “how” scores rise.
  2. A race for knowledge without regard for passion, curiosity, and imagination has damaging effects.  Another example of this is illustrated by the Global Innovation Index research data showing student interest in science going down as test scores go up. We need both interest in science and entrepreneurial activity to rise!
  3. Student engagement is trending downward.   A massive, yearly study conducted by the Gallup organization found student engagement during the primary school years is near 80%.  It drops to 60% during Middle school years and, sadly, student engagement drops to a staggering 40% range during High School.   How important are curiosity and lifelong learning to the well-being of our youth and our community?

Some studies suggest there has been a decline in student creativity over the last 50 years. But forget the study and play with this thought experiment:

Imagine our children entering kindergarten; which of the four core components of creativity is their strongest and weakest: knowledge, imagination, evaluation, or attitude? Now imagine our children as they graduate from high school 12 years later; which are their strongest and weakest?

I’ve asked this question to hundreds of educators, and I imagine your conclusion was the same as theirs. Imagination goes from their strongest quality to their weakest. What!? In the age of AI, this must change!

This is not a rant. It is a call to action.   We know there are limitations with high-stakes tests, and we know our educational systems need to evolve.  Let’s collectively make a difference in this complex situation, beginning with a collaborative design of a new method for evaluating our schools.  What if we had a better measure, an index of performance indicators providing meaningful feedback and inspiring dynamic students, Future Ready Students

Let’s learn from innovative education solutions like Mastery Transcript.

Let’s talk to our local Boards of Education, to be sure this topic is on their school’s agenda.

Let’s make some waves with our Department of Education.  The Secretary’s Twitter is @SecCardona

As teachers, let’s experiment and share our innovative classroom performance measures.

Let’s bring our voices together to amplify change in this area.  Join the conversation here on the Creativity and Education blog, or message me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cmrwright or or email: cory@zideas.com

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